Myanmar’s increasing external ties and final steps to a new constitution

Updated On: Jul 20, 2007

Myanmar’s junta (the State Peace and Development Council) has invited 25 local Burmese media groups (including The Myanmar Times, Yangon Times, the Eleven Media Group and Snapshot Journal) as well as 20 Rangoon-based foreign journalists to cover the final session of the constitution-drafting National Convention.

The convention sees the participation of 1,000 hand-picked delegates at a secluded military compound with resort facilities including a cinema and golf course.

It is the first of the generals' seven steps on the "road map to democracy" and also a chance for the junta to consolidate their power in Myanmar. The talks are expected to last about six weeks. The seven remaining chapters to be finalized are on "Election", "Political Parties", "State of Emergency", "Amendments of Constitution", "State Flag, State Emblem, National Anthem and Capital", "Transitory Provisions" and "General Provisions".

This is a bid to publicize the constitutional process and counter criticisms from Myanmar’s main opposition parties, including the National League for Democracy, who argue that the proceedings of National Convention have not been democratic. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 17 years, had boycotted the convention. Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday that about 50 demonstrators denounced Burma's "sham" talks on a new constitution and Russian involvement with the military junta in Kuala Lumpur. Other than protestors, the United Nations and Western powers also echo the criticism that the proceedings are a sham designed to tighten junta's grip on power.

"This is a sham constitution because only 12 of the convention representatives are elected members of Parliament. The rest were hand-picked by the SPDC," said NLD member Khun Myint Tun, who left the convention in 2005. "The authorities are holding the National Convention as a one-sided process. It cannot solve our problems," said Chin Sian Thang, head of the ethnic Zomi National Congress. However, Colonel Tu Jar, deputy-chairman of the China-Burma border based cease-fire group Kachin Independent Army (KIA) felt otherwise. "We understand that the National Convention chairman will be reviewing all chapters since 1993. We also have to raise some issues for ethnic affairs, especially in ethnic-army controlled areas which they refused during the last session," he said.

The Myanmarese military junta is not only putting up a “public relations” effort to highlight its roadmap to democracy but has also been active with its external relations.  Far from being isolated diplomatically as the US and European Union (EU) would have liked it to be, Myanmar is courted by its big neighbours, including IndiaChina and Pakistan. Unlike the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Indian understanding is based on hard realities — the present ruling junta is there to stay, and it is best to deal with them directly. Coordination between Indian and Myanmar security forces in counter-insurgency operations has grown dramatically in recent years especially after Myanmar's ruler General Than Shwe’s visit to Delhi in 2004.

General Than Shwe has reportedly asked for helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy rockets, navigation equipment and global positioning system devices from the Indian government which India is willing to supply. In August 2006, ignoring British protests, the Indian Navy transferred two British-made BN-2 'Defender' Islander maritime surveillance aircraft and deck-based air-defense guns and varied surveillance equipment to MyanmarIndia went on with the transaction despite British declaration that it would be unable to provide spare parts and maintenance support for them as it opposed the Myanmar’s military junta.

Ironically, EU who always been in the forefront of criticisms against Myanmar, might find itself indirectly transferring military technology to Myanmar.  A Bernama news report quoting a report by NGOs revealed that six EU states may be indirectly transferring helicopter component technologies to Myanmar via India. The report, entitled "Indian helicopters for Myanmar: making a mockery of the EU arms embargo?", was prepared by European and international NGOs, including Amnesty International and Saferworld, who said that the Indian government was planning to transfer the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) made operational with vital components from EU member states to Myanmar.

"Should this transfer go ahead, BelgiumFranceGermanyItalySweden and Britain could be undermining an EU arms embargo on Myanmar in place since 1988," the NGOs said. The ALH apparently contains rocket launchers from Belgium, rockets, guns and engines from France, brake systems from Italy, fuel tanks and gearboxes from Britain and self-protection equipment from a Swedish company while German companies have been crucial to its design.

Other than India and China (Myanmar’s closest ally), Pakistan also has longstanding military ties with Myanmar, to whom it had supplied several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware like 106 mm M-40 recoilless rifles and various small arms over the past decade. Pakistan also regularly trains Myanmarese soldiers to operate a range of Chinese military equipment like T-63 and T-53 tanks, Soviet fighter aircraft and 155-mm howitzers.

Economic ties with India and China are also expanding. Widening road work continues at the Ledo Road that will link India and China through Burma. Tracts of lands have also been opened up for bidding by the country’s own emerging industrialists who have access to the junta or foreign powers that require lots of Myanmar’s natural resources. Business isn’t just restricted to natural resources. India is also making feasibility study on building a deep-sea port in Myanmar's southern Tanintharyi division. More importantly, India is working with the Myanmarese government in the field of technological transfers.

Multilaterally, Myanmar may be ignoring ASEAN and focusing its efforts in another sub-regional grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which comprises BangladeshIndiaMyanmarSri LankaThailandBhutan and NepalMyanmar is now gearing up to take over the chairmanship of the BIMSTEC from India in 2008 under the rotation system. Myanmar’s Dawei deep-sea port project stands as one of the priorities among future programs for the grouping. With a population of over 1.3 billion, which accounts for 21 percent of the world's total, BIMSTEC registered a gross domestic product of 750 billion U.S. dollars and trade volume of 33 to 59 billion dollars.  (20 July 2007)


Burma opens last round of charter talks (The Nation, 18 July 18 2007)

Myanmar constitutional national convention resumes for final phase (Xinhua, 18 July 2007)

Missiles, weapons and engines for Myanmar violate the EU's embargo (World Aeronautical Press Agency, 18 July 2007)

China's role in Burma's National Convention (The Nation, 18 July 2007)

Myanmar active in cooperation with BIMSTEC member countries (Xinhua, 17 July 2007)

India and Myanmar Poised to Boost Ties (WorldPress, 17 July 2007)

EU threatens to undermine Burma arms embargo: Amnesty (Kyodo News, 17 July 2007)

Burma's Robber Barons (Commentary) (Irrawaddy, 17 Jul 07)

Rangoon Journalists Invited to Cover NC's Final Session (Irrawaddy, 17 July 07)

The grip on power tightens (Today, 17 July 07)